Book Review: The Caine Mutiny

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk


(reposted in honor of Herman Wouk, who died yesterday at the age of 103)

Just about everyone has seen the movie based on this book, featuring Humphrey Bogart’s famous performance as Captain Queeg.  The movie is indeed excellent–the book is even better, and contains a lot that is absent from the film.  And while the film ends basically after the court-martial scene, the book continues to follow the USS Caine and  key characters for the duration of the war.  In this review, I won’t worry about spoilers re plot elements that were included in the movie, but will try to minimize them as far as other aspects of the book are concerned. After summarizing the story, I’ll comment on some of the issue raised by the book. (A 2005 article, referencing The Caine Mutiny, refers to Wouk as “the first neoconservative.”)

Lieutenant Commander Philip Queeg, a rigid and insecure man, is appointed during WWII to the command of Caine, a decrepit old destroyer-minesweeper…the ship and its slovenly-appearing crew are described as being part of the  “hoodlum navy.”  This is Queeg’s first command, and he is desperately concerned to make it a success, deeply afraid of making a mistake which will lead to his failure.  Ironically, it is specifically this fear of failure and perceived need for perfection which is responsible for many, perhaps most, of his troubles. When Caine runs aground the first time Queeg takes her out, he fails to submit the required grounding report for fear of higher authority’s reaction. When the ship cuts her own towline while assigned to target-towing duty, Queeg cannot make up him mind whether or not to attempt recovery of the drifting target–and radios in for instructions.  Incidents like these do not inspire confidence in Queeg on the part of his superiors.

The officers and crew of Caine also lose confidence in the captain as his obsessive-compulsive behavior becomes increasingly problematic.  As a result of several incidents during combat, there are also concerns about Queeg’s personal courage. While no one aboard Caine likes Queeg once they get to know him, the captain’s most vocal critic is an officer named Thomas Keefer, an intellectual who is an aspiring novelist. Keefer has a cynical attitude toward the Navy, which he refers to as “a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots,” and advises Willie Keith, a young officer who is his subordinate,  that “If you’re not an idiot, but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one.”

The ship’s executive officer is Steve Maryk. In civilian life a commercial fisherman, Maryk now hopes to make the Navy his career. Maryk is a fine seaman and a good leader, but not a highly-educated man–he is somewhat in awe of Tom Keefer’s intellectual attainments.

In repeated conversations, Keefer tells Maryk that the captain must be mentally ill, using psychological jargon and concepts that Maryk does not pretend to understand. Maryk is concerned enough about Queeg’s behavior that he begins keeping a “medical log” on Queeg, with the idea of presenting this to higher authority if necessary and possible. The time seems right when Caine shares an anchorage with the battleship carrying Admiral Halsey:  Maryk takes his log, takes Keefer in tow, and heads over to the New Jersey to see if they can speak with the Admiral.  But Keefer, at the last moment, chickens out, asserting that Halsey, with his experience aboard large well-managed ships, would never be able to understand the state of things aboard a hoodlum-navy ship like Caine, and that raising the issue with him would only get the two of them in trouble.  Feeling unable to make the case without support, Maryk gives up on talking to Halsey and the two officers return to Caine.

But soon thereafter, the old ship encounters a typhooon. Fleet course is 180 degrees, due south–away from the wind–and Queeg refuses to adopt the safer course of heading into the wind even though communication with other ships, as well as radar contact, has been lost.

An unbelievably big gray wave loomed on the port side, high over the bridge. It came smashing down. Water spouted into the wheelhouse from the open wing, flooding to Willie’s knees. The water felt surprisingly warm and sticky, like blood. “Sir, we’re shipping water on the goddamn bridge!” said Maryk shrilly. “We’ve got to come around into the wind!”

“Heading 245, sir.” Stilwell’s voice was sobbing. “She ain’t answering to the engines at all, sir!”

The Caine rolled almost completely over on its port side.  Everybody in the wheelhouse except Stilwell went sliding across the streaming deck and piled up against the windows.  The sea was under their noses, dashing up against the glass.  “Mr Maryk, the light on this gyro just went out!” screamed Stilwell, clinging desperately to the wheel.  The wind howled and shrieked in Willie’s ears.  He lay on his face on the deck, tumbling around in salt water, flailing for a grip at something solid.


To save the ship, Maryk relieves Queeg of command, citing Article 184 of the Navy Regulations, which provide for relief of a commander in certain extraordinary circumstances…and he is supported by Willie Keith, who is at the time Officer of the Deck. Maryk heads the ship into the wind. Caine rides out the typhoon, but a court-martial will follow.

Willie Keith is the book’s main protagonist in that the action is largely seen through his eyes. He is a recent Princeton graduate with an upper-middle-class background, a rather distant father, and what we would now call a “helicopter” mother.  Willie studied comparative literature in college, but “his real career at Princeton had consisted of playing the piano and inventing bright little songs for parties and shows.”  During the first year of the war, he has spent his evenings at nightclubs, playing the piano and singing his original ditties.  He developed a crush on a nightclub singer called May Winn—her real name is Marie Minotti, and, knowing well that his mother would never approve of such a match, Willie despite his strong attraction toward May/Marie has put her on his “for fun, but not for marriage” list.  He joined the Navy only because the draft was breathing over his shoulder, and has been somewhat surprised to find himself developing an emotional attachment to the service.

The court martial is focused on the issue of whether the relief of Queeg as captain was justified, and this turns on the question of whether he was in fact mentally ill. Expert witnesses called by the prosecution testify basically that while Queeg might be a little weird, so is everybody in some way or another, and that Queeg’s weirdness was not so extreme as to disqualify him for command of a naval vessel.

Things do not look good for the defendants, Keith and Maryk, but they are assigned as their counsel the brilliant lawyer Barney Greenwald…who left his practice to join the navy and become a pilot and is only available for legal work because of an injury. Greenwald cleverly leads the one of the prosecution defense psychologists into basically insulting the Navy and its commanding officers.  Dr Bird has admitted that Caine does have some psychological problems, but they are not severe enough to disable him from commanding a ship:

“Could his sickness, greatly intensified, disable him?”

“Very greatly intensified, yes.”

Greenwald said with sudden sharpness, “Isn’t there another possibility, Doctor?”…Suppose the requirements of command were many times as severe as you believe them to be–wouldn’t even this mild sickness disable Queeg?”

Dr Bird admits that he has no experience with ships’ captains, and in response to Greenwald’s question, “Do you think command requires a highly gifted, exceptional person?” he responds in the negative and states his own understanding of what the job requires:

“Not highly gifted, no.  Adequate responses, fairly good intelligence, and sufficient training and experience, but–“

“Is that enough equipment for, say, a skilled psychologist”

“Well, not exactly–that is, it’s a different field—

Greenwald’s discrediting of the psychologists, together with Queeg’s near-breakdown on the witness stand, suffices to get a “not guilty” verdict for Maryk and Willie Keith.  Caine‘s officers hold a celebratory party for the two former defendants, which is combined with a celebration of Keefer’s novel, which has now been accepted for publication. Greenwald, the lawyer, shows up drunk and makes a speech in which he states that he feels terrible about what he had to do to Queeg,  that the country owes a lot to its professional military class, and that Jews such as himself should feel this appreciation especially strongly:

See, while I was studying law ‘n old Keefer here was writing his play for the Theatre Guild, and Willie here was on the playing fields of Prinshton, all that time these birds we call regulars–these stuffy, stupid Prussians, in the Navy and the Army–were manning guns.  Course they weren’t doing it to save my mom from Hitler, they were doing it for dough, like everybody does what they do. Question is, in the last analysis–last analysis–what do you do for dough?  Old Yellowstain, for dough, was standing guard on this fat, dumb and happy country of ours.  Meantime me, I was advancing my little free non-Prussian life for dough.  Of course, we figured in those days, only foods go into armed service.  Bad pay, no millionaire future, and you can’t call your mind or body your own.  Not for sensitive intellectuals.

Winding up his speech, Greenwald tells Maryk and Willie that Keefer–who he calls “the author of the Caine mutiny among his other works”–is a weasel who could have testified much more effectively in their defense than he actually did.  Addressing Keefer, he says:

You bowled a perfect score. You went after Queeg and got him. You kept your own skirts all white and starchy…You’ll publish your novel proving that the Navy stinks, and you’ll make a million dollars and marry Hedy Lamarr…Here’s to you, Mr Caine’s favorite author, and here’s to your book…

Greenwald throws his wine in Keefer’s face.

As the lawyer had predicted, Maryk’s hope of a naval career is destroyed by the Caine incident…he is transferred to the humiliating command of a landing craft. Willie, despite his acquittal, receives a formal reprimand from the reviewing authority, which calls the verdict a miscarriage of justice.  He remains with Caine, as does Keefer–and, after a brief interval during which the ship is under the command of a captain known as a trouble-shooter, the novelist becomes captain of the Caine.  Still later, after events that I’ll not mention for spoiler-avoidance purposes, Willie himself takes over as skipper.

There is a subplot involving Willie’s romance with May Winn….some reviewers have commented that this subplot seems pasted on and has little to do with the main action of the book.  But The Caine Mutiny is among other things a coming-of-age novel, and Willie’s relationship with May is very relevant in that context.  Throughout the story, he is torn between his desire and possibly love for May and his concern the disapproval of his somewhat overwhelming mother and also the girl’s inappropriateness for his social milieu.  After May and Willie sleep together on one of his leaves, he also begins to regard her to a certain extent as a Fallen Woman. Whether Willie will clearly decide that he wants to marry May…and whether she will agree, given some of his behavior–are questions relevant to how far he will progress in his emergence from callow youth.

A primary theme of the book is the question of obedience to authority when that authority is heavy-handed, ineffective, and not too bright. Most people have understood from the book that Wouk believed it was wrong of the Caine’s officers to mutiny against Captain Queeg…that the ship probably would have survived the typhoon even had Queeg not been relieved of command…and that, even earlier, if the officers (especially Keefer) had reined in their hostility to the captain and given him more moral support, he would not have reached the level of emotional anguish and chaos that led to his potentially-fatal action (really, lack of action) in the storm.  This was probably Wouk’s message, on the other hand, it seems possible that he intended to leave the rightness of the relief as an open question.  Queeg’s character is drawn in such a way that it seems unlikely that even the most uniformly friendly and submissive behavior on the part of his officers could have prevented his downward spiral.  Also, the book also shows Queeg pretty clearly as showing what can only be called cowardice under fire–and it definitely seems unlikely that nicer behavior by the officers could have altered that aspect of his character.  (One reviewer thought it noteworthy that the officers’ mutinous attitude toward Queeg did not reach a climax during these combat incidents, in which the captain’s behavior potentially threatened the lives of other people, but only during the typhoon which threatened their ownlives.)

Wouk clearly does intend the ship’s intellectual, Tom Keefer, to be seen in a bad light.  As Greenwald notes after the court martial, Keefer is much more interested in protecting himself from any repercussions–even though he is not a defendant–than in bringing out the truth and supporting his shipmates.  And despite all his cynicism about Navy inefficiency, Keefer is not all that efficient himself. When Willie joins Caine, Keefer is not using the standard Navy system for filing classified messages, using instead a bizarre and complex system developed by another officer several ship’s generations ago–and complaining constantly about how much time he has to waste on the filing process. (When Willie later replaces this kluge system with the standard Navy system, filing efficiency rises sharply.)  How Keefer performs when he eventually becomes Captain, you can learn by reading the second part of the book.

The book has been criticized for emphasizing conformity to authority–even bad authority–as a virtue. This article (which refers to Wouk as “the first neoconservative”) cites a contemporary work by William Whyte which challenges Greenwald’s view that willing obedience to officers like Queeg helped defend Jews, among others, from Hitler:

Whyte could not see the logic in these remarks because at the time people viewed the Holocaust as exemplifying the intense evil that had resulted from tyrannical state power. The crime of the Holocaust demonstrated the need for individuals to respond to their consciences and not merely obey superiors. In 1945 and for sometime afterwards the idea of an authoritarian moral lesson — the importance of “following orders” as the lesson of the Holocaust — seemed unimaginable. Only Wouk’s story-telling ability makes this assertion seem plausible.

This formulation seems to me to ignore the difference between obedience to authority based on practical considerations (somebody has to make the decision what what to do with the ship in the typhoon, somebody has to make the decision whether or not to engage the Japanese shore battery) and obedience to authority which is imposing policies which violate one’s conscience.  Obeying an order to maintain fleet course and run before the wind, when one’s knowledge of seamanship suggests that this is not a wise course, is something quite different from obeying an order to murder Jews or Poles or Kulaks.

Commentary Magazine’s original review of the book (1952) notes that contemporary American intellectuals have concerned themselves little, if at all, with problems of responsibility and command:

These problems are familiar in past literature. Aeneas, Creon, and Henry V are perhaps too ancient to mention; but Conrad and Kipling are full of conflicts of allegiance and more or less explicit moral codes of action. The reason, I think, is fairly clear: Conrad had lived with Nostromo and Lord Jim, Kipling with his bridge-builders and colonial administrators. The modern writer who has been around had done all sorts of odd jobs, no doubt, but subordinate odd jobs. At best he has been in charge of the college paper, and he has spent most of his life among other intellectuals.

…the author praises Wouk for attempting to remedy this by focusing on specifically on responsibility and command, but compares the quality of writing and character development adversely with several other works, including Melville’s Billy Budd, and says:

At every turn Wouk disappoints the thoughtful reader, who nevertheless must be grateful for so much genuine stuff instead of mere slickness or the talented wails of over-age adolescence. Speculation on the reasons for his comparative failure may come simply to the tame conclusion that Wouk is not a great writer. But certain paradoxes remain:

If The Caine Mutiny is read only as an apology for the professional, Wouk undermines that reading with more complex and profound possibilities. His acceptance of Greenwald’s code is dictated either by his ready appreciation of the Job To Be Done (the war), or by his unwillingness to move too far ahead of readers accustomed to an all-sufficient code, or by both. But he is uneasy about offering so simple a solution. And his uneasiness indicates both the central shortcoming of the novel and his awareness of the magnitude of the moral problem that he has raised but not successfully solved.

In 2013, Commentary published an article under the title How This Magazine Wronged Herman Wouk, referring to the above-mentioned review and also to a negative 1955 review of Wouk’s novel Marjorie Morningstar.  Concerning The Caine Mutiny and specifically to the wine-throwing incident, the author (Michael Lewis) says:

This gesture, a wine stain that parallels Queeg’s yellow stain, is the sort of symbolism that Wouk’s detractors have always found cloying. It has the same obvious quality as the scene in which Marjorie Morningstar loses her virginity and much of her self-respect, and while reaching in the dark for a glass of water causes it to drop and break, a too-literal evocation of the conclusion of a Jewish wedding.

But to focus on the sentimentality of the symbolism is to miss how brilliantly and artfully Wouk forces the reader to reconsider Queeg. Of course the conventional and lazy way to show this is the cinematic shortcut of filming a scene in several ways, showing several points of view. But in life itself, we can only think about what we saw and heard in different ways. They are themselves sufficiently complex and ambiguous; what seems incontrovertibly true one day (Queeg is dangerously deranged and must be relieved) can seem quite the opposite the next (Queeg is desperately worn out and urgently in need of kind help).

What is remarkable about The Caine Mutiny is that this reconsideration of Queeg is effected with no cagey revealing of heretofore concealed information, merely by a suggestion that we look at the facts we know from a different perspective. Who has not experienced this? Our most urgent certainties can collapse at a friend’s unexpected comments.

The original 1952 review ends with these words:

One more suggestion: the intellectual, in spite of his splendidly wretched alienation, does from time to time participate in the intoxication and the pangs of power, and will probably participate more and more in the coming years. He cannot have failed to notice that power has its own moral problems and that it may require a “code of honor” even in the middle of the 20th century; but he is not yet studying the question, and he is not writing his novels about it. In this respect if in no other, The Caine Mutiny, for all its huge sales and its Pulitzer Prize an attempt at serious fiction, is ahead of the intellectuals. If it cannot teach them their own business, it at least points to where an important part of their present business lies.

Intellectuals (or at least people who consider themselves to be intellectuals) do today participate in “the intoxication and pangs of power” to a considerable extent–some of them are scientific intellectuals of the type C P Snow addressed in his book Science and Government, but most of them are intellectuals closer to the Tom Keefer type, if typically without his literary abilities.  The issues raised by Wouk in The Caine Mutiny are still very much with us.

(The Commentary reviews are on-line, but subscription or purchase is required for access)

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Caine Mutiny”

  1. No substantive comment, just wanted to say “well done.” A thoughtful and insightful tribute to the passing of a gifted writer.

  2. To me, the big difference between the book and the movie, is the book goes on, and shows how Keefer learns that being Captain is a difficult job and shows the Kamikaze Attacks off Okinawa.

    And of course, Queeg in the book, is not 53 y/o Humphrey Bogart but a 30 y/o Naval Academy Grad. The novel also makes the point that Queeg was a loser, which is why he was put on the Caine in the first place. The Navy had a hierarchy, older regular officers got command of Aircraft Carriers, BB, CA, CLs. The younger officers got Subs, DD, and DE’s. At the bottom of the list were the Minesweepers (like the Caine) and other miscellaneous warships. Most the LST’s or amphibious landing craft were commanded by reservists. Wouk makes the point that at his stage in his career Queeg should have been commanding a much more important vessel – if it’d a good Captain.

  3. Wouk was a naval officer in WWII and knew all the types of people he wrote about in the Caine Mutiny. He went to the Naval Midshipman school in Manhattan in 1942. My father in law was there earlier in 1942 in one of the 90 day classes before Wouk. It was based at Columbia University with classes on a converted WWI battleship in the Hudson. In my father in laws case they produced a first rate “yearbook” for their class complete with advertisements from Brooks Brothers and other uniform tailors, articles and more. For 90 days they had sports teams, a glee club and orchestra, held social events and even dances at the big York hotels. They marched to the Hayden planetarium to learn navigation. The class was highly diverse with Yale and Harvard lawyers, big band musicians, businessmen and prairie state agriculture majors. They were invited to major social figures homes including the Sultzbergers (NY TIMES) and others. So Keefer was someone Wouk may have known, or may have feared he would become.

    Later in the war, the demand for officers reached much deeper into society so the complex mix of 1942 was very unique.

    Wouk served on several ships until 1949 leaving a Lt.

  4. “So Keefer was someone Wouk may have known, or may have feared he would become.”

    He actually wrote his first novel—I think it was ‘Aurora Dawn’—while serving onboard.

  5. Thanks for the repost, and thanks David Foster for linking the original post for the excellent comment thread. I never read the book, need to do that. The Cruel Sea was a favorite movie of mine from the way back, but the novel is so much better, IMO. Great discussion CB.

  6. I read The Caine Mutiny in my sophomore American Literature class. I don’t remember what I wrote about it in my book report. I do remember that although I was late in handing the book report in, my English teacher didn’t mark me down for lateness. He went on to get a Ph.D. (NOT in Education, so the real thing).

  7. It’s probably been 50 years since I read the book or saw the movie.

    Bits and pieces and quotes come ip frequently but this is the first real discussion I’ve seen.

    Very well done and thank you.

    John Henry

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